You have to give Stephen Christian credit – the man is far from your typical rock star. Of course he is best known for his work with scene staples Anberlin, but Christian has a degree in psychology, has written a book, co-founded a non-profit organization, and is in general a supremely nice guy. So when he accumulated a pile of songs that didn’t quite fit what Anberlin was doing, it makes sense that Stephen wouldn’t take the easy way out. He could certainly tweak the songs enough so they could be peppered amongst future Anberlin releases, but rather than compromise the cohesiveness of those works and the integrity of these compositions, Christian instead decided to give them a proper release under the Anchor & Braille moniker. This was by no means some hasty, overnight project. It is a true labor of love that has been in progress (in some form or another) for almost a decade, and with the quality of Felt, it shows.
Aaron Marsh’s hand in this record is readily apparent, as Felt could most easily be described as what a Copeland record would sound like with Stephen Christian on vocals. This is indeed an oversimplification, but it serves as a barometer for what listeners can expect from the album. Those Copeland fans who yearn for the days of Beneath Medicine Tree simplicity will find comfort in the arrangements on Felt, as they retain a bit of the organic allure that has been replaced with slick polish on more recent Copeland efforts. And while Christian’s vocals work well with the anthem-minded Anberlin, they seem just as fitting on these minimalist charmers.
“Rust (The Short Story of Mary Agnosia)” starts the record on a mellow, subdued note instrumentally, but allows Christian’s plaintive falsetto to shine through and set the tone for the rest of Felt. “Like Steps in a Dance” is a more commercially appealing tune, landing it first-single status, with its bustling percussion undertow and Christian’s chorus sounding eerily Aaron Marsh-y. “Blur” and “Introspect” are a gorgeous pair of compositions that take a more patient approach, and the results are stunning, especially on the latter, where Stephen’s vocals ebb and flow effortlessly on top of a pitch-perfect arrangement. It is here where Felt goes from being pleasant to being transcendent. Even the most hardened cynics will find it impossible to be unmoved when Christian repeatedly asks, “Is this heaven, or is this hell?” “Summer Tongues” is a lightweight, delicate number that dances on fragile falsettos, and whose subtle guitar strums make me think I wasn’t the only one who loved Primitive Radio Gods’ “Motor of Joy” from White Hot Peach.
The second half of Felt loses no momentum, as “Wedding/Funeral” is a downright arresting offering. From Christian’s laconic verse delivery, to the way he inflates to full projection on the chorus, and an uncommon attention to detail (the trailing background vocal addition at 2:40) that would make Steve Lillywhite’s blush, the track is just complete. “Forget Love. I Just Want You To Make Sense To Me Tonight” is a moody, soulful tune highlighted by guest vocals from Aaron Marsh himself. And for those who wondered whatFelt might have been without Marsh’s oversight, “Sing Out” is probably where it would have gone – more acoustic, more Americana, more folk. The song is a nice divergence from the arc of its precursors, but it will likely make listeners glad that Aaron was there to fluff up the tracks a little. The album wraps up with high marks, as “Sheet Music/Sheet Music” is yet another stirring, timeless expression of splendor, tying the entire package together quite nicely. The record only really loses steam in the middle with the old-fashioned, “Kite”-like “Calm, Calm, Calm Yourself” and “Sleep. When We Die,” which feels a little stale for longtime fans that have had the track for years. Still, it does little to dampen the overall excellence of the work.
Fans of Stephen Christian and Aaron Marsh will likely approach Anchor & Braille’s Felt with the highest of expectations. Luckily for those followers, their anticipations are rewarded in full, as the record is a stunning achievement. It is a labor of love in the truest sense of the phrase, and it certainly shows. You can hear Christian bleeding for these songs, and it is the sort of passion that elicits goosebumps from listeners ready to be swept up on an emotional journey. It is hard to say if Christian and Marsh will ever compile another record under the Anchor & Braille name, but if not, we will all be thankful to at least have this.